Christopher Patnoe: the four secrets of inclusive innovation

Making your products accessible to people with disabilities shouldn't be an afterthought, it should be built into your design process, says Google's Christopher Patnoe

Christopher Patnoe is the Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google. He leads Google’s efforts around the accessibility of product, people, policy, and partnerships across EMEA – with a particular focus on Emerging Markets.

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In the world of AI, how do we avoid forgetting the people who would be best served by these technologies? How do we build products that are truly inclusive for the disabled?

That’s the question that led Patnoe into a second career after stints at Apple, Sony Ericsson and Disney Mobile. He joined Google, and there he discovered accessibility’s critical importance when he realised how difficult it was for blind people to use Google Music.

Accessibility is about autonomy, about giving people with disabilities the ability to live freely in a world not designed for them. Eventually, every one of us will need accessibility technologies, through accident or age.

Every product you build is a result of choices: what do you include, and what do you exclude? If you choose to include inclusion from the start, then it’s so much easier.

Four principles of inclusive design

Leverage your strengths

At Google’ they’re very good at AI, so they can use that, for example. What are your core competencies, and then think how you can use them to improve the experience.

Nothing about us without us

Build with the people who will use the technology, not for them. They know what they require.

Start with one

Don’t try to solve every problem at once – it’s too much. Start with one person, one feature, one product, one bug.

Progress, not perfection

A process is better than perfection because perfection never arrives. There’s no such thing as perfect accessibility. Things change, people are different. Just make it ever better.

An example: captioning

In YouTube, they’ve been developing automatic captioning since 2009. That work has spread to Google Meet as well. But with Generative AI and LLMs, they’re moving towards Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish model – almost magical transcription. They’re doing live transcription in 80 languages. It can listen out for your name being called, or a device alarm sound.

They’ve shrunk the model underlying the technology, and put it on the phone, so your device can caption any digital interaction you have.